Originally created 12/31/06

Bamboo hunters



FAYETTEVILLE, Ga. - If you think kids are picky, try feeding a giant panda.

It takes four full-time bamboo hunters at Zoo Atlanta to satisfy the palates of the zoo's panda pair, Lun Lun and Yang Yang. And they are not always successful.

The animals' diet consists almost entirely of bamboo, but they will eat only about 20 of the 200 or so species that grow in Georgia. What type they like also varies by the time of year. Sometimes the pandas will eat nothing but one variety for a week, then refuse to eat it anymore.

And it has to be fresh - the pandas turn up their noses at wilted leaves and discolored stalks.

So the zoo relies on a bamboo hunting team to find and harvest local patches of the plant.

The bamboo hunters have even visited Augusta on occasion to harvest food for the zoo's picky residents. In 2005, they took bamboo from the home of Gloria and Lowell Greenbaum on Water's Edge. The Greenbaums said they planted the bamboo as a reminder of their time in Japan.

Each panda eats 20 pounds to 30 pounds of bamboo a day. The leaves and stalks account for about 95 percent of their diet.

That means that the bamboo hunters have to haul in about 400 pounds of bamboo each week to provide enough food for the pandas and a few other zoo animals, like the elephants and gorillas, that also eat the plants.

The team works five days a week harvesting bamboo from yards of approved donors on a list of about 1,500 within 100 miles of Atlanta. Their jobs will get tougher in nine months when the zoo's panda cub Mei Lan, born Sept. 6, moves from Lun Lun's milk to the stalk.

Zoo Atlanta spends $2 million each year on the pandas, which includes the costs of leasing them from the Chinese government and employing the bamboo hunters.

On a recent morning, Zoo Atlanta's bamboo hunters trooped through a wooded lot carrying a saw, a lopper and twine. They sawed, chopped and bundled the long, green stalks with ease and efficiency, filling the back of their truck in a couple of hours.

"Sometimes, in the country, people come out with their guns and ask, 'What are y'all doing?'" said Rytis Daujotas, one of the bamboo hunters.

The plants must be free of chemicals, bird droppings or other animal feces, which can be toxic to the pandas.

And the bamboo team cannot use power tools because any oil or gas residue would poison the pandas. The hand-held saw and lopper are greased with cooking oil after being disinfected every day.

Staff reports were used in this article.